Deb Bratcher never predicted that she would be raising a baby and preschool-aged children as a grandmother.
She has worked many years as a graphic designer with a local Pinellas manufacturer, a job she truly enjoys. She and her husband were saving money for their retirement and had grand aspirations for the travels that awaited them. She spent her free time with friends and her husband, and she was eagerly awaiting her retirement.
In June 2005, all that changed. Bratcher's daughter informed her that the state would be taking custody of her three young children. The family was living in a rundown motel. Her daughter could no longer support the children and asked Bratcher to take them on a temporary basis.
Bratcher hoped her daughter would create a stable life suitable for the children, but she continued to neglect her parental responsibilities. So Bratcher took full legal custody of her grandchildren at the tender ages of 1, 3 and 5. The Bratchers had to downsize their home to economize and cash in their retirement. Their lives were forever changed.
Many families are finding themselves in a similar situation. Today, there are approximately 17,000 Pinellas County children living with relative caregivers. These relatives, many of whom are grandparents, struggle with issues that can seem insurmountable.
Fortunately, Kinship Services Network provides support for these families in Pinellas County. The program is a collaborative effort of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Pinellas County, Children's Home Inc. and the Catholic Charities Diocese of St. Petersburg. Funded by the Pinellas County Juvenile Welfare Board, the program provides support to relative caregivers by helping families access necessary services, expanding family support systems and ultimately reducing stress to promote family stability.
Bratcher and her husband have cared for their grandchildren as parents for the last 5½ years. As a family involved with the Kinship Services Network, she feels one of the most resourceful programs offered to her family has been Big Brothers Big Sisters.
Big Brothers Big Sisters makes meaningful, monitored matches between a volunteer mentor, or "Big," and a child, or "Little." All three of her grandchildren have been matched with their own "Big" in the program. This has provided the older couple with support and companionship for their active grandchildren.
"Having these mentors involved with our family has given us a huge sigh of relief," said Bratcher. "We know that our precious grandkids have wonderful people to look up to that will help guide them in life."
Research shows that having the positive influence of a Big Brother, Big Sister or Big Couple makes a real difference in the life of a child and can ultimately break negative family cycles. "Littles" experience improvements in academic performance, behavior and relationships at home and elsewhere, according to independent studies.
In Pinellas County, children matched with a Big Brother or Big Sister for one year were 96.5 percent less likely to become involved with the Department of Juvenile Justice. Littles have also demonstrated better success in school with a 96 percent promotion rate to the next grade level.
With more than 1,000 children in the Tampa Bay area on the waiting list, Big Brothers Big Sisters is asking for your help. More than 74 percent of our children waiting for a "Big" are boys, but only 34 out of every 100 interested volunteers are men. Now more than ever, we need your help to help our community's children.
"I praise the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization and I am constantly encouraging individuals to become a volunteer," Bratcher said. "My husband and I both feel so blessed that this organization is here for our grandkids."
You have the power to impact the life of a child in Big Brothers Big Sisters. In just one hour a week you can make a difference. Visit www.bbbspc.org or call (727) 518-8860.
Susan Rolston is CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Pinellas County, serving Pinellas, Hernando and Citrus counties.